The Bhullars Are Not The Only NBA Hopefuls From Punjab

Satnam Singh Bhamara, a basketball player from Punjab who is 7 feet 2 inches tall, is another NBA hopeful from India. His parents, farmer Balbir Bhamara, a tall man himself, and Sukhwinder Kaur, near their village of Baloke in Punjab.
03 April, 2015

On 2 April 2015, Gursimran Bhullar, a twenty-two-year-old Canadian basketball player of Indian origin, signed a ten-day contract with the Sacramento Kings—a professional basketball team in California—to become the first player of Indian descent to be on an NBA (National Basketball Association) team's regular season roster. His twenty-year-old brother Tanveer plays for New Mexico State and may be on his way to making a debut with the NBA in future as well. In a story from our June 2014 issue, Adam B Lerner profiled Satnam Singh Bhamara, one of the four Indian players to win a scholarship from IMG Reliance, a partnership between the International Management Group Worldwide, a New-York based global sports and media company that runs the IMG Academy, and Reliance Industries Limited, India's largest private-sectior corporation. In this excerpt from the story, Lerner takes a look at Bhamara's beginnings in Ludhiana and his prospects with the NBA. 

SATNAM SINGH BHAMARA grew up on a farm in the Punjabi village of Baloke, about seventy kilometres from Ludhiana, in a dusty brick house that now sports the village’s only basketball hoop, mounted delicately on a wall above a hardened dirt driveway. There, Balbir, his seven-foot-three-inch father, grows maize, wheat and rice, runs a flour mill, and raises dairy buffalo to support the family. Balbir, who was also once the village sarpanch, had heard of basketball in his youth but never played it. “My family didn’t consider basketball,” he told CNN in a 2012 segment profiling Bhamara—he was expected to work in the same profession as his father.

But by the time Satnam was born, in 1995, word of international superstars like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and of the enormous earning of those who made it to the world’s top leagues, had trickled into rural India through televisions and newspapers. When Bhamara was nine years old and already almost six feet tall, a family friend recommended the sport. His father read in a newspaper that the Ludhiana Basketball Academy was calling for “tall and talented” players to come train there.

The Academy, which is one of India’s best training centres, opened in 2002 with funding from a UK-based non-resident Indian. When Bhamara visited, the Punjab Basketball Association officials who run the school immediately took note. As the saying goes, you can’t teach height—the Bhamara family’s most obviously exceptional quality. Bhamara received a scholarship to live and train at the academy the following year.

I traveled to Ludhiana last December. Harjinder Singh, an incredibly tall Sikh with a beaming smile who is the Punjabi state team coach, picked me up on his motorcycle from the clock tower at the centre of town and took me to the academy. There he immediately invited me to join a scrimmage by way of introduction to the players training that day. They included several of India’s finest young athletes, some of them Bhamara’s old friends.

The boys lined up from tallest to shortest as Singh picked the teams, and I marvelled at their height; at least half a dozen stood noticeably above six feet, despite the fact that most were between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. On one of the first plays, I watched in awe as one player rushed down the court towards me and dunked for two easy points. Later, my team achieved retribution as Palpreet Singh Brar, one of the academy’s stars, turned the corner on his defender and threw down a thunderous two-handed dunk that left him hanging off the rim. Brar, a shy nineteen-year-old who measures about six feet and eight inches, was both the tallest and oldest on the court. He rose to international prominence at the 2012 Under-18 FIBA Asia Championship, where he earned the tournament’s third-best average of 21.5 points a game. After the game I asked him whether he knew Bhamara. He responded in whispered Punjabi that they had been roommates and good friends.

Bhamara attended the academy for five years. During that time he trained for the Punjab under-fourteen team, and for the national team in the same age group, while also attending a local school. Teja Singh Dhaliwal, secretary of the state basketball association, told me he was impressed by Bhamara from the start. “He has [had] no ego, even from childhood,” Dhaliwal said when we met in Ludhiana, but the boy’s innate athletic gift spoke for itself. At first, Bhamara was slow and his footwork cumbersome, but his size and strength were unparalleled for someone his age. It was obvious to the coaches that he merited special attention, but the academy could not afford the world-class trainers and state-of-the-art equipment necessary to develop Bhamara’s game the way academies in other countries could.

By 2010, Indian basketball officials took notice of Bhamara’s height and abilities. The BFI recommended him to be part of a three-player contingent sent to the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp, part of a training programme for players from around the world, in Singapore. IMG Reliance was founded just after Bhamara’s return that March. Within six months, the new partnership invited Andy Borman, the director of the basketball programme at IMG Academy, and Dan Barto, the programme’s head skills trainer, to monitor tryouts in Delhi for four scholarships each for boys and girls to train at IMG Academy. Bhamara was the most obvious choice among the contenders.

On his first trip to India in April 2013, former NBA Commissioner David Stern told reporters that “if you need a specific answer” to the question of how long it would take to have an Indian in the NBA, “I would say five years.” At this point, Bhamara is the only player who comes to mind as a candidate. He may not be the highest scoring player currently on the Indian national team—that title would likely go to twenty-three-year-old Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, who averaged a team-best 13.1 points per game during the 2013 FIBA Asia tournament—but for basketball insiders he may well have the greatest potential.

Widening the net to include players of Indian origin in other countries, however, raises other possibilities. The Indian community in Canada has two of its own prospects, the Bhullar brothers Sim and Tanveer (seven-foot-five and seven-foot-three respectively), who both play for a team in the top American collegiate division—the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s Division I. Though Sim has entered the 2014 NBA draft, health problems make it unlikely he will play in the NBA for any significant time. Pasha Bains, another Indian-origin Canadian, was one of the first people of Indian-origin to play top-division college basketball in the US, and is now the founder and head coach of Drive Basketball, a youth training centre in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. He told me that an Indian in the NBA would make a “huge impact” on the significant number of India-origin players in the area.

An excerpt from 'The Long Shot,' published in The Caravan's June 2014 issue. Read the story in full here.